When Sam Houston State football defeated Stephen F. Austin State 19-6 in November 1923, neither team realized they were creating the Battle of the Piney Woods.
Sparked since that 1923 game, the rivalry game enters its 89th meeting on Saturday at NRG Stadium in Houston.
“It’s a wonderful rivalry,” SHSU athletic director Bobby Williams said. “It’s one of the best around.”
Of the 88 previous meetings between the two teams, the Bearkats hold a 51-35-2 lead in the all-time series.
As the two teams face off in the Southland Conference battle this week, fans will fill the stands to see the third-longest rivalry in Texas. This will be the fifth game between the two teams at NRG stadium with the Bearkats winning three of the last four.
Not only has there been great history in the games but great players have taken part in the BOTPW as well. Sixty NCAA Division-I All-Americans have participated in the great rivalry games and 110 players went on to play in the NFL, including six who have played in a Super Bowl.
SFA will see a young and different SHSU squad than in previous years. While neither the SHSU all-time leading rusher nor previous four-year starting quarterback are with SHSU, head coach in K.C. Keeler leads the Bearkats as well as many transfer athletes.
This is Keeler’s first game in the rivalry.
“When I first got here, before I was hired in the interview process, I was hearing talk about not bringing purple with me if I got the job,” Keeler said. “I wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about.”
Since 2007, the winner of the game not only gets bragging rights for a year but also the Piney Woods trophy. The 21-pound trophy has replica pistols on a tombstone with each teams’ logo engraved on the handles. This year, the winner also stays in the hunt for the SLC title while the loser’s season is more likely in jeopardy.
“It’s more than just the Battle for the Piney Woods,” Keeler said. “For us it’s we win out, we are conference champs and make the playoffs. We know we need to go one at a time, but we know this is a huge ball game.”
In four of the last five BOTPW games, the winner has gone on to win the SLC championship, and all five times the winner has made it to the FCS playoffs. Nine out of the last 13 games have been decided by eight points or less. The majority of the BOTPW games are either blowouts or down-to-the-wire games. With SHSU and SFA being two of the five teams tied for first in the SLC, this game lines up to be another big game in the historic rivalry.
“This game is big for us,” Keeler said. “One of us will be knocked out out of the conference hopeful list.”
As much as a rivalry as it is, a rivalry still has to hold the upmost respect for one another team. Williams, who has been in the SHSU sports program for 33 years, said he has many friends who work at SFA.
“We have some really good friends over there,” Williams said. “It’s one of those types of things where we want to beat each other. It’s intense, it’s a great atmosphere, but afterwards there are some good friendships over there.”
Bearkats will kickoff at 3 p.m. in Houston at NRG Stadium on Saturday.